Pranayama to Boost Immunity

Pranayama practice provides more oxygen to the blood, reduces stress levels and fights anxiety - all of which boost the immune system.
Pranayama to Boost Immunity
Representational Image Source: Flickr

Life is a miracle and every breath we take is a gift from God. Regardless of whether we have been vaccinated once, twice or not at all, we are obliged to strictly follow the Covid19 protocol of wearing mask, social distancing, staying home, etc. if we want to stay alive. Until a cure is found, we are additionally advised to boost our immunity levels, which can be done by having a “healthy diet” and proper breathing exercises since the pandemic targets our lungs first before moving on to other organs.

India has a very rich tradition of breathing exercises. In fact, these are a part of Patanjali’s Yog Sutra, which comprises of eight stages or limbs namely: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. As we see for ourselves, Pranayama is the 4th limb of Yoga and comprises of two other words: Prana and Ayama. Pranayama is all about the breath. Prana means the breath, the air, and life itself. It’s said to be the energy permeating the universe at all levels: physical, mental, intellectual, sexual, spiritual and cosmic. This is the energy that creates, protects and destroys. Vigour, power, vitality, life and spirit are all forms of Prana. Ayama means to stretch, regulate, and control. Taken together, Pranayama means the prolongation of breath and its control. The aim of the discipline is not just to support health and wellbeing. It is about finding equilibrium between the physical and the vital energies, and a form of purification for the whole nervous system. Pranayama practice provides more oxygen to the blood, reduces stress levels and fights anxiety - all of which boost the immune system. Regular practice of pranayama can have an even more profound impact on our health and wellbeing when considered alongside the way our lives have changed.

When we consciously take deep breaths from our bellies as opposed to our chests, we activate the diaphragm - the thin skeletal muscle underneath the heart and lungs that separates them from the abdominal cavity. That’s why belly breathing is often called diaphragmatic breathing. It is when our lower belly expands outwardly as we inhale and contracts inwardly as we exhale. This process helps to strengthen our entire digestive system. Since about 80% of our immune tissue is situated in our digestive tract or the gut, breath work can improve the body’s immune response.

We can think of Diaphragmatic breathing as offering a massage to our internal organs and glands. This in turn helps move lymph (fluid containing white blood cells) throughout the body. A yogic breathwork-based study published in the Public Library of Science also found that controlled deep belly breathing may also strengthen the body’s defenses by changing the gene expression of certain immune cells. According to a study by the Norwegian University of Science & Technology, breath-holding doesn’t only change the genetic activity of white blood cells; it also significantly increases the amount of white blood cells in the body available to help fight illnesses. For the purpose of the study, the researchers obtained blood samples from world-class divers at an international competition before and after the athletes completed a series of dives. The results were striking: the activity of more than 5,000 genes (almost 25% of all genes found in human cells) changed in response to the simple effort of breath-holding. The most striking finding was a significant increase in the number of a specific white blood cell type: neutrophil granulocytes, which are programmed for rapid response when the body is under attack from infections and viruses.

In a paper titled “Yoga Effect to System Immune: A Systematic Review” published in a conference in Brawijaya University, Indonesia, it was concluded that Kapalbhati Pranayama and Yoga can improve Immunity by improving blood circulation, reducing fatigue, reducing stress and improving the physical posture. Another study by Sung ah Lim and Kwang Jo Cheong in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicines claims an improvement in anti-oxidants in the body resulting in better immunity by the regular practice of Kapalbhati Pranayama and Pranayama emphasized Yoga. Two other Pranayams closely linked to Kapalbhati are Bhastrika Pranayama, which enhances our lung capacity enabling us to breathe in more fresh oxygen and remove toxins and impurities from our system and Nadi Shodhana Pranayama that helps with circulatory and respiratory problems and thereby helps us relax by releasing the accumulated stress from the body and mind. It also helps purify the energy channels, thereby ensuring a smooth flow of prana (life force) through the body. These three pranayams energize us while keeping us calm boosting our immunity and preventing illness.

A study by Colombian researchers Jose Luis Torres and Willian Ferrando Pinzon published in the journal named “Revista de la Facultad de Medicina” concludes that “yoga with an emphasis on pranayama could boost cardiovascular and lung function.” Though not specifically singled out in the conclusion, Kapalbhati Pranayama was also part of the package that tested to get the result.

Turkish researchers from the University of Erciyes and Nevsehir Haci Bektas Veli University in their paper titled “Effect of pranayama breathing technique on asthma control, pulmonary function, and quality of life: A single-blind, randomized, controlled trial” noted significant improvements in the lifestyle of asthma patients who practiced Kapalbhati, Ujjayi and Anulom-Vinulom pranayama for a total of 20 minutes daily for 1 month. Their respiratory health improved with regular practice, the study noted. A similar enhancement in respiratory health was also noted in a larger 250 subject study conducted by students from Gajah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Pranayamas can boost our immune system, and make us clear-headed enough to make informed decisions and act quickly, while they help us manage our anxieties. It slows and regularizes our breath; engages a part of the nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system that helps us calm down and relax; links our hormonal, immune, detox, and nervous systems; increases the capacity of our respiratory system; increases the vagal tone and decreasing stress hormones and activating the lymphatic system which plays a major role in the immune system; controls the autonomic nervous system which in turn, controls essential functions such as the heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure (according to research published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine) and can increase the number of natural killer cells called white blood cells or simply WBCs.

Fear and anxiety are palpable in the working population of the world as economies have been hit badly by the coronavirus pandemic. We are experiencing lockdown blues too. Pranayama offers a solution to our lockdown anxiety; just keep our mind calm during the lockdown - and stay put at home. Doubting Thomasses would say that it is easier said than done. This is where yoga asanas and pranayamas can help. The best thing is that we don’t have to go out, and worry about masks and social distancing. Sitting right at home, we can find a way to stay calm, think rationally and composedly at this lockdown time when it seems almost impossible – just by using our breath!

Breath is closely connected to the state of our mind and emotions creating a breath-emotion loop. Our thoughts and emotions affect our breath patterns or breathing rhythm. So when we are anxious, our breath becomes short and fast. On the other hand, when we are engaged in a pleasant conversation or are in a happy space, our breath becomes slower, longer, and deeper reflecting our relaxed state of mind. Similarly, the breath also influences our mental and emotional state. When we consciously breathe more slowly and deeply, our mind also becomes calm and relaxed; and this happens very quickly. We can regain control over our mental and emotional state in a few minutes only! So, through Pranayama, we have the reins to activate our body’s innate ability to relax in the form of conscious breathing!

How to go about doing Pranayama? While there is a lot of literature and videos available on the internet that can help and guide the beginners, trained guidance may be required if one wants to do advanced practice. Here is a brief introduction for beginners who are inclined to benefit from the breathing exercises.

Choose a comfortable sitting position – we sit cross-legged on the floor, with our feet on a cushion or on a yoga mat, or on a chair with our feet flat on the floor. Keep our back and neck straight and sit upright; relax the body; close the eyes; keep the mouth closed and breathe easily. Breathe comfortably for a few moments. Follow up by taking a slow deep breath in and breathe out slowly. Continue taking slow, deep, and gentle breaths in and out. Gradually, make your breath slower and deeper, and breathe out slowly. Continue breathing in the same pattern for about 12 rounds; relax by placing the hands on the thighs. Allow the breath to return to normal while observing the state of the mind, the sensations in the body and the surroundings. Gently open the eyes and lie down comfortably on the back with the legs stretched out and the feet in line with the hips. Repeat the 12 rounds while lying in this posture. That should be enough for a beginner who will develop capacities over time and improve the technique as he practices regularly.

Bhushan Lal Razdan, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.

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